Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics: Lecture 1 Transcript
January 16, 2007
Professor Charles Bailyn:
Some things about this course. This is a course for non-scientists. That portion of
the enrollment policies is not a suggestion. I really don't want science majors in this class. If you are a science
major, I'm going to notice because that's one of the things that appears on the class list; what your major is.
So, don't take the course if you're a science major. Let me point out that freshmen don't have major, so it
doesn't matter if you intend to be a science major if you're a freshman. If you are a science major I
recommend Astro 210, which is being given this term. I have a little handout on all the different introductory
astronomy courses at the front of the room if you're interested.
Let's see, it is also true that this course is kind of intended for non-science majors who have a certain basic
high school level comfort with tenth-grade science and math. If you're extremely phobic about these kinds of
things, I would say that Astronomy 120, while it has a similar level of math, has a somewhat shallower
learning curve and a somewhat deeper safety net. So, if you're the kind of person who breaks into a sweat
when somebody writes down an equal sign, check out 120. Let's see, but that's not the biggest difference
between this class and 120. I think the biggest difference is what the class is trying to do. Astronomy 120 and
also 110 and other courses in our department, and elsewhere in the university, are basically survey courses.
Most introductory science courses are survey courses. They cover a fairly wide subject matter.
This is--isn't that, what this course is supposed to do is we're going to talk about three particular topics in
very considerable detail. Enough detail so that by the end of our discussion you'll understand what's going on
in current research in this topic. And by current, I don't mean this decade, I mean this week. Astronomy is
currently in a stage of very rapid advancement, and one of the things that's happened every time I've taught
this course in the past, is that at some point during the semester someone will publish some piece of research
which changes some aspect of the curriculum. I'll come in waving some paper and everything will be
changed, and I can't guarantee that of course, because I can't predict the future but it's happened every time in
the past. So, we really are trying to get you all the way out to the frontiers of the subject.
I think this is actually a better approach for non-science majors, because after all, we live in the Internet age.
If you want to find out a bunch of facts about some scientific topic you could go online and go to Wikipedia
or wherever, look these facts up. That's not a big problem. The problem comes when there are two sets of
facts which directly contradict each other. This happens quite frequently in scientific topics these days,
particularly those with kind of political or moral overtones, and you get facts that directly contradict each
other. What are you supposed to do about that? What I'm hoping is that by talking about situations in which